Community Charge

Community Charge

The Community Charge, popularly known as the "poll tax", was a system of taxation introduced in replacement of the rates to part fund local government in Scotland from 1989, and England and Wales from 1990. It provided for a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, at a rate set by the local authority. The tax was intensely unpopular, and was replaced by Council Tax in 1993.


The abolition of the rating system of taxes (based on the notional rental value of a house) to fund local government had been in the manifesto of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party in the 1979 general election. A Green Paper, Alternatives to Domestic Rates, issued in 1981, considered a flat-rate poll tax as a supplement to another tax, noting that a large flat-rate poll tax would be seen as unfair.

The 1980s saw a period of general confrontation between central government and Labour-controlled local authorities, that eventually led to the abolition of the Greater London Council and the six metropolitan county councils. The commitment to abolish the rates was replaced in the 1983 general election manifesto with a commitment to introduce the ability for central government to cap rates which it saw as excessive. This was introduced by the Rates Act 1984. However, Thatcher's government thought spending was still generally excessive and that poor voters would be deterred from voting for high-spending councils if they had to pay a greater share of the tax.

Although the ratings system was supposed to have regular revaluations in order to minimise discrepancies, the revaluations in England and Wales had been cancelled in 1978 and 1983. The Scottish revaluation of 1985/1986 led to a great deal of criticism and gave added urgency to rates reform or replacement.

The Green Paper of 1986, Paying for Local Government, produced by the Department of the Environment from consultations between Rothschild, William Waldegrave and Kenneth Baker, proposed the Community Charge. This was a fixed tax per adult resident, hence a poll tax, although there was a reduction for poor people. This charged each person for the services provided in their community. Due to the amount of local taxes paid by businesses varying, and the amount of grant provided by central government to individual local authorities varying, there were dramatic differences in the amount charged between councils.


This proposal was contained in the Conservative Manifesto for the 1987 General Election. The legislation introducing the Community Charge was passed in 1988 and the new tax replaced the rates in Scotland from the start of the 1989/90 financial year and in England and Wales from the start of the 1990/91 financial year. Additionally the uniform business rate, levied by local government at a rate set by central government and then apportioned between local authorities in proportion to their population, was introduced.

The tax was not implemented in Northern Ireland, which continued, as it still does as of 2008, to levy the rating system, despite some unionists calling for the province to have the same taxation system as the rest of the United Kingdom. That the tax was introduced in Scotland a year before England and Wales is often described as causing the death of the Conservatives in Scotland, and cementing their image as an English party. However, in 1992 the Conservative vote increased in Scotland compared to 1987 (before the introduction of the poll tax). Nonetheless, by 1997 the position was reversed, with the result that there were no Conservative Members of Parliament in Scotland.


Protesters complained that the tax shifted from the estimated price of a house to the number of people living in it, with the effect of shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor. It did not help that Thatcher, close to the end of her period in office and losing popularity, chose to champion the Community Charge herself and apparently chose to be both ruthless in imposing it and adamant that there would be no "U-turns" (reversals in policy).

Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than many earlier predictions. Some have argued that local councils saw the introduction of the new system of taxation as the opportunity to make significant increases in the amount taken, assuming (correctly) that it would be the originators of the new tax system and not its local operators who would be blamed.

Owner-occupiers paid because they couldn't hide, and it cost less for them than rates had; renters didn't pay because they knew they would be long gone when the bills arrived. Councils of towns with highly mobile populations, e.g. university towns, were faced with big store rooms of un-processed "gone-aways".

The initial register was wildly apocryphal. It was based on the rates register for "owned" houses with lots of other unreliable data such as housing benefit recipients.

The big collection issue was the 20/100% split. People with jobs had to pay 100%, students and the unemployed paid 20%. However if someone in the household had a job all of the household was liable for 100%. The nature of the shared house market meant that not even the landlord knew exactly who was living there; tenants were replaced, and may have shared a "single" room with their partner. So the local council had no idea who was living where and when, and the local population were unlikely to assist them.

Central government imposed "collection targets". Because of demographics this tended to hit the "irresponsible" Labour authorities. Cannier councils adjusted the register size to the number of people who paid, and so got whatever collection rate they wanted.

The charge was bitterly opposed and people sought to protest through mass protests called by the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation to which the vast majority of local Anti Poll Tax Unions (APTUs) were affiliated. In Scotland, where the tax was implemented first, the APTUs called for mass non-payment. These calls rapidly gathered widespread support in Scotland and then in England and Wales, even though non-payment meant that people could be prosecuted.

As the charges began to rise, large numbers of people refused to pay the tax (up to 30% of former ratepayers in some areas according to the BBC), enforcement measures became increasingly draconian, and unrest mounted and culminated in a number of Poll Tax Riots. The most serious of these happened in London on March 31 1990, during a protest at Trafalgar Square, London, in which more than 200,000 protesters attended. A Labour MP, Terry Fields, was jailed for 60 days for refusing to pay his poll tax.

Long-term effects

For this among other reasons, Mrs Thatcher was challenged by Michael Heseltine for the Conservative leadership. Although she prevailed by a margin of 50 votes, she narrowly missed the threshold to avoid a second vote, and on November 22 1990 Thatcher resigned after reluctance from her Cabinet to continue supporting her. All three of the contenders to succeed her pledged to abandon the tax.

The successful candidate, John Major, appointed his defeated rival Michael Heseltine to the post of Environment Secretary, responsible for replacing the Community Charge. In 1991 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, announced a raise in Value Added Tax from 15% to 17.5% to pay for a £140 reduction in the tax. By the time of the 1992 general election, legislation had been passed replacing Community Charge with the Council Tax from the start of the 1993/94 financial year, but the VAT rate of 17.5% remained despite abolition of the poll tax.

The Council Tax strongly resembled the rating system that the Poll Tax had replaced. The main differences were that it was levied on capital value rather than notional rental value of a property, and that a 25% discount for single occupancy dwellings was introduced.


  • Failure in British government: the politics of the poll tax, David Butler, Andrew Adonis & Tony Travers. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1994. ISBN 0-19-827876-4

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